One of the best single ideas I’ve seen – how to write a school manual?

Ben Bernanke is the current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States.

He co-authored a book which I currently read:

There is a dedicated page on this book for “the philosophy of this text”.

I won’t present it exactly, but I will present you the main idea.

Let’s say you are about to create an introductory text for a science. Any science. The trouble is, there are lots of notions to be learned, lots of different things.

How do authors generally approach this issue? “Oh, we’ll briefly present all or most of the ideas in the field, and, by the end of the book, the student will have a glimpse on what those ideas are”. Sometimes, this is taken to the extreme – “here are all the ideas / concepts / notions in the field” -, but most times it’s merely moderate – “these are the most important ideas in the field, have a glimpse of them all”.

And here comes a strategic idea by the book’s authors – don’t strive to present everything. Instead, you should pick the important things for the student and present them thoroughly.

Let’s detail these, shall we?

  • Picking the most important things – you, as a book author, have probably read all of the most important books in your field, you are hugely experimented, you know what is important and what not. Surely, in a perfect world, every student could retain everything. But in an imperfect world, it’s hard to memorize and understand a lot of concepts. It’s much better that you make the decision, instead of leaving it to the student.
  • Present ideas thoroughly – a lot of times, when reading a school manual, you may get the impression that it can go deeper. A lot deeper. While an introductory book can’t aim to fully cover a subject, it should, on the other hand, try its best to make the student understand the subject well. In the book presented above, they go deeper than this. Since there are not that many principles/ideas presented/covered, they are mixed. So, you can see a cross-reference from chapter 7 to chapter 3, from chapter 14 to chapter 5 and so on. Once you read & understand an idea, you are, then, encouraged to use it. And an idea is much better understood if explained thoroughly.

Let’s have a broader look at the strategy:

  • You can write a shallow book, presenting all the notions for a specific subject.
  • You can go deeper and pick the most important subjects for the student.
  • You can write a very niche book, with one subject, detailed and thorough (but this is not likely to be an introductory book).

The authors of the book I currently read:

go for the second option.

Strategically, to me, this is one of the best ideas that I’ve read in a book. It was mind blowing.

You can apply this in other fields. When you want to synthesize information for someone, you might feel the urge to present lots of ideas, just to make the receiver get a glimpse on them. While this is not necessarily bad (especially if the person whom you address this understands each idea well), it might be better to just pick what’s the most important. You’re the expert – you pick.

Another thing is the need for explanation. Surely, you can get off by just presenting an idea, but it’s much better to provide an example, to show a life case study, to detail the principles of functioning.

So, the two takeaways of this blog post:

  • Choose the most important things for your reader, don’t let him do this.
  • Detail things, go deeper than the shallow surface.

can be put to great use in writing a school manual.

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